AUBURN, Ala. — Despite never trailing, Auburn was tested for a full 40 minutes in an 87-69 win over Alabama-Huntsville in the final exhibition for both teams before the 2022-23 season officially begins.
UAH came out of the opening tip in a diamond press. Auburn guard Wendell Green Jr. initially passed to Yohan Traore just behind midcourt on the sideline, but Chargers Luke Burnett and Chaney Johnson quickly double-teamed Traore. Traore bounce-passed out of the trap back to Green, but by the time the latter corralled the ball and was able to dribble past halfcourt, Burnett and Johnson were waiting for him. Green’s ensuing timeout call got the Charger bench riled up.
UAH head coach John Shulman said that’s a feature of the team’s defense as a point of strategy as well as a demonstration of his values.
“That's what we do. It's who we are. Listen, I've been an underdog my whole life. I've been one. I've got no talent, but I’ve got a big heart. So what do I do? I want our kids to play with my personality. I want our kids to play with a lot of heart, a lot of effort. We're a talented group … that's what we do to other people: we make them uncomfortable.”
And while that defensive stand set the tone, Auburn responded to a physical Charger defense with offense. Jaylin Williams led all scorers with 16 points during a perfect shooting performance - 5/5 on two-pointers, 1/1 on threes and 3/3 on free throws. He was one of four Tigers in double figures.
Another notable performance included an overall impact made by newly-minted second-team preseason All-SEC guard K.D. Johnson, who, despite an ineffective shooting night, Auburn outscored UAH by 23 points when he was on the floor. Johnson finished with eight points on 1/7 from the floor and 6/8 from the line, good for a 38% True Shooting percentage - a stat that weights shots from the floor and the line.
The Tiger offense was spread out. Three of the four double-digit scorers were from non-starters. Overall, the AU bench out-scored the Charger unit 53-13. It was the most telling stat disparity in a game played between a Division I and Division II team.
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said postgame that the team’s composition of athletes lets them play meaningful minutes
“Obviously our strength, you know, is our depth,” said Pearl.
He added that playing 15 guys was part of a strategy to “try some things out” and that over the course of the season, there will be more opportunity for individuals to earn playing time.
“[I j]ust changed the starting lineup a little bit tonight just to give some other guys a chance to hear their name called and trying, again, still trying different combinations.”
UAH couldn’t keep pace offensively with the Tiger scoring both in sheer volume of points and quantity of scorers. Johnson led the Chargers in scoring with 14. He was one of four Chargers with double-digit points.
The challenges inherent to facing a D-I team only create a learning opportunity for Shulman’s team, he said.
“You don't grow in comfort situations, in comfortable situations. You grow in uncomfortable situations. That was uncomfortable. Getting the ball in bounds was uncomfortable. I mean, just getting the ball in!” he said. “We got better tonight because … we got squeezed a little bit and we fought through adversity. And like I said, we got better.”
“You know, I told Bruce at halftime they would win the GSC,” Shulman added, smirking. “I know that they would win our league.”
Even though the Tigers were never in true threat to lose the game - see: a game-high 22-point lead with under three minutes to go - Pearl said “there were a lot of things” he was “concerned about.”
“Foul trouble necessarily wasn’t one of them … shooting it better, executing it better, playing through fatigue,” he said. “Look, we play hard and we wear people out, but when they (Auburn players) get tired, you know, we can't… we can't let down ourselves a little bit.”
“Instead of running your offense at 23 feet, you're running it at 28 feet. Instead of making an easy pass there, their length makes you a little tougher. Everything was a little tougher, but we were able to do it, which is a great sign for us. Listen, we're not giving championships out November the second, all right? Give championships out in February.”
Despite competing in two different NCAA classifications, the Alabama-Huntsville and Auburn men’s basketball teams have some similarities. Both enter the season as top-25 teams and as favorites to win their leagues.
Auburn begins their regular season Monday, Nov. 7 at home against George Mason. Tip-off from Neville Arena is set for 7 p.m.
Alabama-Huntsville begins their season on the road against two top-10 teams in the D-II ranks. They get Nova-Southeastern as part of the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame Classic in Lakeland, Fla. on Saturday and No. 6 Lincoln Memorial the following day. Both games are at Jenkins Fieldhouse on the campus of Florida Southern College. The Chargers return to the Rocket City for their home opener in the Bill Penney Crossover Classic against Saint Leo on Nov. 11.